The Thing Itself: C.S. Lewis on What We Long for in Our Existential Longing

“…only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.”

The Thing Itself: C.S. Lewis on What We Long for in Our Existential Longing

Longing is the worst thing that can take away our ability to be present. Longing, however, is the strongest creative force we can recognize. Out of our search for meaning was all that science came; out from our quest for truth and beauty all of literature; and out our yearning to love all the facts of life. We may give this undertone of being different names — Susan Cain calls it “the bittersweet” and Portuguese has the lovely word saudade: the vague, constant longing for something or someone beyond the horizon of reality — but we recognize it in our marrow, in the strata of the soul beyond the reach of words.

C.S., the modern philosopher, storyteller, Narnia creator and mystic, is the one who has explored the paradoxical nature longing better than any other. Lewis (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963) in a sermon he delivered on June 8, 1941, which later lent its title to his 1949 collection of addresses The Weight of Glory (public library).

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Available as a printed version.

Lewis — who thought deeply about the significance of suffering and the secret of happiness — writes:

The desire to have a country of our own. [is]The secret that hurts so badly that you call it Nostalgia, Romanticism, and Adolescence. It is also the secret that pierces with such sweetness, that when it is mentioned in intimate conversations, it causes us to become awkward. This secret, which we can’t hide or tell even though we want to, makes it difficult to keep it a secret. Because it’s a longing for something we don’t know, it can’t be told. Because our experience constantly suggests it, we cannot conceal it. And when we mention a name, it’s like a lover betraying us. It is common to refer to it as beauty, and act like that has resolved the problem. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. This is an error. Wordsworth would have gone back to the past to find the thing, not the reminder. What he remembers would be a recalling.

As Lewis considers the illusory nature of these shorthands for our longing, we are left with the radiant intimation that “the thing itself” is not something we reach for, something beyond us, but something we are:

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If we put our trust in the books and music that we believed contained the beauty, they will disappoint us. It was in them. The beauty came only through them. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. These things are not the actual thing. They’re just the fragrance of a flower that we haven’t found or an echo of a song we haven’t heard.

For Lewis, who was religious, this notion of “the thing itself” — the ultimate object of longing — was anchored in his understanding of God. For me, it calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s exquisite epiphany about the meaning of art and life, found while strolling through her flower-garden:

Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.

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